AIHce: Are Injured Garment Workers Tied up in Red Tape?

A recent study conducted among injured garment workers in New York shows that on average, it takes as long as two years for their workers' compensation cases to be resolved.

By that point, said Marianne Fahs, Ph.D., MPH, who is with New School University in New York and who led the research effort, many of the workers - who are predominately women - have been ruined financially.

Referring to September 11 and how as a New Yorker she felt safe walking around San Diego, Fahs told an audience at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce), "Many workers in New York City have been feeling unsafe for years and have been pretty much invisible."

The incident rate for carpel tunnel syndrome among garment workers is four times higher than for the general population, she noted, or 102 cases for every 100,000 workers. The study compared a group of garment workers suffering from various musculoskeletal illnesses with a group of clerical workers from Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York who are suffering from similar illnesses.

The study examined health and function, economic consequences, treatment options and programs, work adjustments made and workers' compensation claims paid for the two groups of workers.

Of the garment workers, who were, for the most part, members of UNITE, two-thirds were Spanish and one-third were Asian. Most of them were suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. Among the hospital workers, most were English-speaking and were higher paid than the garment workers.

Fahs noted that of the garment workers diagnosed with CTS, 83 percent stopped working and never returned, and for most of them, their annual income dropped from around $20,000 per year to less than $10,000. "That's a lot of permanent and partial disability for a condition that can be treatable or the progress of which can be slowed," noted Fahs.

They reported significantly higher levels of pain than the Mt. Sinai employees with similar conditions, longer periods of time before filing a workers' compensation claim and having it resolved, fewer cases where surgery was suggested or done, and very few changes made in their work environments by comparison to the Mt. Sinai workers. "Most of them were told by doctors their case was work-related," reports Fahs. "But less than half were told to file a claim. The opposite was true at Mt. Sinai."

For many of the garment workers, they still reported severe pain as long as four years after their initial diagnosis. Again, that was not true of the workers at Mt. Sinai.

"These are women, not making a lot of money, trying to obtain a foothold in the American economy. Sixty-four percent reported they used up their life-savings," said Fahr. And they're still in pain and suffering.

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